Hudson Valley Sudbury School: A Conversation with Matthew Gioia

Q&A   10 October 2019
By Matthew Gioia, Hudson Valley Sudbury School


We care most about two things: 1) our students’ personal fulfillment (discovering their own genius) and 2) how prepared they are to integrate into society-at-large.

Matthew Gioia

Q: What path led you to your current role at Hudson Valley Sudbury School?

Matthew: One of my earliest memories as a learner is from when I was four years old. I remember looking up at my mother’s bookshelf—just packed with books—and thinking to myself that once I learn how to read, I’m going to read them all. It seemed so exciting to imagine all of the stories and knowledge those books contained.

Sure enough, I became an avid reader as a child. And, as I grew older, school really got in the way of my reading interest. That took a toll on me in middle school and high school. I had a few classes where I seriously struggled. But, it wasn’t because I was incapable or uninterested. I just wouldn’t budge from my interest in reading, and the less I got to do that, the less successful (by the standards at the time) I was.

When I decided to get into teaching, I saw it as a way to contribute to the modern-day civil rights movement. I thought education was a modern frontline in the issues we’re still working on today, and those underserved and impoverished communities really needed better educational resources to succeed economically.

I joined the Mississippi Teacher Corps (similar structure to Teach For America) in 2010 and entered my first classroom, in a struggling school, with nothing but a summer crash course in teaching to my name. 

My first year there was a total disaster. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to manage a classroom. And, more importantly, I had many students who had significant challenges outside the classroom that needed to be addressed before they were going to have any chance of being able to engage fully in my class.

Things started turning around the second year. I had a much better sense of how to manage a classroom, and my energy was much steadier. I began succeeding by the standards of the administration and the Mississippi Department of Education. That was satisfying to me, but it also opened up this space for me to begin noticing more intractable, paradigmatic problems with school. I began looking at the system and saw that I had to differentiate my instruction to better meet the needs of each student. But, I found this to be really challenging, and I realized the only effective and appropriate way to proceed as a teacher would be to differentiate for everyone. It was very evident to me that all of my students had their own unique needs, desires, and directions that they wanted to pursue. The conventional model of one teacher and 30 students seemed hopeless.

It was, at that point, I began reading about other models of learning, like Montessori, and books from authors like John Taylor Gatto. I quickly found Sudbury Valley School and started reading some of the books by Sudbury Valley’s founder, Daniel Greenberg. Immediately, I felt I had found my home in the education world.

Q: What struck a chord with you when reading specifically about Sudbury Valley School?

Matthew: To me, the most basic element of the Sudbury model is that the adults are not in any position of arbitrary authority over and above the young people. It seemed like a basic component of developing a respectful relationship between adults and young people. The adults are not there to coerce young people into any particular course of action. At our school, the only time we ever have such authority is when it comes to active hazards.

I wanted to be a part of this shift in power dynamics. I thought it would make space for really rich relationships and allow young people to feel totally safe with adults and be themselves. That has proven to be true here at Hudson Valley Sudbury School.

Q: Do you believe there is space in the community you served in Mississippi to have a discussion about transforming education?

Matthew: I think there is room for it, but just a little. And, the steps would have to be very small. When I first started in 2010, the school was still using corporal punishment. However, a new, young (26 years old) principal had just started at the middle school where I was working, and he made the executive decision to eliminate all forms of corporal punishment. I use that example to simply show where the starting line was for this community. Anything that’s too big, too fast will get a lot of backlash. 

But, having said all that, I’ve also learned that there is no real way of predicting how people would react to conversations about reimagining the purpose of education. I’d be open to being surprised.

Q: If you were to create the space in the Mississippi community you served to explore new ideas about education and really engage in that creative process, what would need to be true?

Matthew: That’s a hard one. It kind of makes me think of the story of Reggio Emilia. The people in that town built that system from the ground up after their country was ruined in World War II. I feel like if people somehow were given the opportunity to start from scratch, literally or figuratively, it would open up new conversations.

Q: What is one of your favorite stories of learning at Hudson Valley Sudbury School?

Matthew: To provide some context, our school has a bunch of different activity-based groups we call co-ops. And, the story I want to share is a small example of what we see on a weekly basis. In our kitchen area, there was a girl who was helping keep our kitchen organized and maintaining all the equipment. The kitchen is often run like a business and totally owned by the students where they sell various food items, as well as the day’s lunch.

One day, this girl needed to go around asking everybody who had signed up for lunch if they wanted garlic bread or regular plain white bread. It’s an innocuous question, but she was very nervous—to the point where she was almost in tears. She didn’t want to do this task, but she also didn’t want to hand it off to someone else.

She began asking people very apprehensively and awkwardly. But, by the end of it, she was bounding around the school asking everyone about their bread preference. When she finished, she felt terrific—knowing she was able to work through her anxiety.

It’s a simple story, but those are the ones I love and witness all the time—young people taking on adversity and overcoming it. That’s really what I love about the school. I see our students grow and take on whatever task they are interested in pursuing (be it asking for bread or traveling to India to speak at a conference).

Q: What does success look like at Hudson Valley Sudbury School?

Matthew: We care most about two things: 1) our students’ personal fulfillment (discovering their own genius) and 2) how prepared they are to integrate into society-at-large. We really try to balance those two. For some people, personal fulfillment and being a productive member of society includes a lot of academic training. For others, it includes very little. We don’t place any special emphasis on academics of any kind at our school.

We consider writing, reading, and arithmetic to be basic skills that students acquire by exploring their interests, without studying them as discrete objects of study. They develop these skills because they’re living a rich life—pursuing their interests here in the community. They acquire them in a way that is seamlessly integrated with their regular lives. They hardly notice they’re doing it because it just shows up naturally in whatever they are pursuing.

Q: What would you say attracts parents to this success framework?

Matthew: I am very clear with parents in our admissions process about what they can expect, and we’ve never had anybody ask for or expect to receive a formal assessment. 

We use the lack of formal assessment as a call to action for parents to become closer to their children and their learning experiences. Rather than relying on a piece of paper from us, they can rely on conversations with their children and observe the growth they are experiencing on a weekly basis. Of course, we have an open-door policy and are more than happy to speak with parents who have any questions or want to know what we’re observing in their kids on a daily basis. But, if a family calls and asks to come in, I will check-in with their child to ask if they are okay with me talking about what they’ve been doing in school and what I’ve observed. And, I will respect the child’s answer. Overall, parents are definitely challenged by the lack of conventional assessment, but we want to honor the approach used by the original Sudbury Valley.

Q: What do you wish you were asked more often about learner-centered education?

Matthew: I wish people would ask how it feels to be at our school. I think that the heart of our school—and the reason we love and believe in it so much and that students are so happy here—is because of how it feels. There is just an energy here. School is conventionally focused on the intellectual or cerebral side of things and ignores how students and staff actually feel while going through the system.

Relatedly, I love talking about the relationships people have here. It’s funny because the most common question I receive after describing our program is, “How do they learn math?” When in conversation with prospective families, I always think, “We can get to that, but it really misses the point and the heart of the matter.” There is so much more significance in talking about how good it feels to be in a freeing environment where we are all working together to accomplish our collective and individual goals. That’s the gem we have here and what I would like more people to ask us about.

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